Dribbles

Turning the cute dial to eleven because it’s almost supper time, I finally manage to grab a decent photograph of our cat. We’ve only been her butler and maid since February.

Taking back control?

Never in the fields of ingenuity – and marketing resources – have so many people been so deluded by the prospect of this season’s must-have item: ‘independence’ from the EU.

Forget arguments about economics which cannot be proved either way until events transpire to overwhelm us.  Forget arguments about immigration/ control of our borders/ racism.  Having continued access to the single market promised by the Leave campaign requires agreement to the free movement of people (ask Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein).  One argument that has resounded again and again and has never been analysed in any depth is the idea that voters in the UK can ‘take back control of their government’.

Let’s break down what we mean by government here in the UK.

First, the government in Westminster is called ‘HM Government’ which means ‘Her Majesty‘s Government’.

Second, though Lizzie Windsor has always maintained – in public, at least – a politically neutral position, she retains the power to dissolve parliament.  Remember that the UK is a constitutional monarchy (albeit one without a written constitution).  These vague powers also require that her First Minister of the Treasury (or, what you oiks call a Prime Minister) attend on Lizzie to give her a regular update on the business of her parliament.

Third, just because HM Government has debated and voted on what items should be made into law, those bits of legislation don’t reach the statute and become law until Lizzie Windsor signs them off.  Every odious bit of rank bullshit passed by HM Government in the last six years – including the additional taxing of bedrooms required by disabled people for medical equipment/ live-in carers etc – has been signed into law by Lizzie.  And don’t say she can’t refuse because on at least one occasion – The Local Government etc Act (Scotland) 1973 – she has.  (Thank you Fife Regional Council for digging your heels in on that bit of needless meddling by Westminster).

Fourth, the monarchy is not the only unelected, antidemocratic force in the UK, whether in or out of the EU, at this time.  The House of Lords.  That’s 800 gallows needed right there.  A mixture of tax-dodging political donors and former MPs thrown out of office by voters who wanted someone to better represent them in the lower House of Commons.  Only the Chinese government has more uneelected bums on seats making laws.

Fifth, the presence of unelected Parliamentary Agents in the House of Commons.  There are at least five appointees with the power to order your elected MP out of the chamber.  You can’t get rid of these people who variously represent the monarchy, The Corporation of the City of London and others.

Sixth, and perhaps not least.  Before we were members of the EU, everyone was a ‘subject of the Crown’.  In effect, you, your family, your possessions, your right to fair representation in the courts and so on, were at the discretion of the monarch, which is to say that you were property, a slave in effect if not in so many words.  Today, you are a citizen of the EU.  A citizen is one who takes part in the process of selecting governments and in other civil acts.  If, after today, you are not a citizen of the EU, you are demanding the right to once again wear the shackles that previous generations fought so hard to be rid of (and that, Jeremy Corbyn, is the argument which as Leader of The Labour Party you should have been making).  Even if you like Lizzie Windsor and willingly refer to her as your queen*, do you trust the people advising her?

For all its apparent complexity, the EU works on simple basis.  The EU Commission proposes laws to national governments.  Those elected governments then debate between them what should be considered for legislation.  This proposed legislation is then put to the EU Parliament where MEPs elected by you then debate the merits of these proposals before voting on them.  There are 50 thousand bureaucrats for the whole of the EU (of which a third are translators making sure that the laws are properly codified and stated for all 28 member states).  There are ten times that many bureaucrats for the UK alone.

If you think the EU is anti-democratic or unrepresentational then perhaps the problem – and the solution to that perceived problem – is closer to home.  It might be a different referendum from two years ago but the same issues remains in contest: who should lead us?

Remember that when you vote today.

(* I’ll call her ‘queen’, ‘Your Highness’ or whatever when I get a chance to vote on who should be my Head of State… which kind of defeats the point.)

Brian Catling, The Vorrh

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Brian Catling’s novel ‘The Vorrh’ is quite unlike anything you have read before. In a just world, where bland, conservative middle-class literary types who’ve never journeyed much beyond the M25 except on a gap year did not get to decide that only books about failure in middle-age, divorce or a distrust of ethnic minorities in a multicultural urban setting should be the accepted standard for literary fiction, Brian Catling’s novel would be getting hailed from the roof-tops as the very best fiction published in years. There is a strong argument to be made that this novel is in fact one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.

The novel’s many failings as literary fiction include its categorisation as fantasy; it is set in a mythologised version of equatorial Africa and is a critique of British Empire at its peak but is not based on real-life events; it has a man born as a cyclops as one of the main characters; there are ghost-like forms and the suggestion that the great forest is alive, and; it doesn’t spoil the book to mention the extraordinary first chapter where the protagonist turns his lover into a bow. This novel is not quaintly described as a work of ‘speculative’ fiction but instead plants it’s flag proudly.

But ‘The Vorrh’ is much too exciting to be just a work of literary fiction. It is a work of fantasy and all the better for it. There are no dragons here. There are no swords and sorcerers and certainly, no derivative fellowships or demonic Bad Guys attempting to take over the world. There is also no Final Battle in which the forces of good overcome evil and all is made good in the end… and thank f*ckety f*ck for that.

‘The Vorrh’ re-imagines fantasy. It goes further and re-imagines imagination. Though a greater part of the narrative involves two journeys – one taking the protagonist on a physical expedition through the great forest, the other taking a young woman on a journey to the dark interior of her heart and mind – the majority of the tropes familiar to readers of fantasy are going to find themselves on very strange domain. In short, Catling has taken the rulebook created by Tolkien and used it as a wick to light the candle to altogether deeper depths of the imagination.

If there was a list of ingredients for this novel, it would include M John Harrison’s, Pale City series and the writings of HP Lovecraft, there’d be a generous handful of Ursula Le Guin and a pinch of the nature writings of Nan Shepherd. Poetic language abounds and recalls Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, Rossetti’s The Goblin Market and a big heft of Blake. There’s a hint of Rider Haggard, David Lindsay and Conan Doyle and from more modern influences, there is a nod to Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Carroll and Alan Moore.

Right from when I first obtained a sample of the first chapters as a digital download to when I finished reading the hardback edition, I felt that this was not the work of a young, début novelist but instead someone who has spent a lifetime reading and enjoying literature, both high-brow and pulp, someone who has a very visual grasp of the world the characters inhabited and I resisted the temptation to Google any more about the possible identity of the author (and my determination to avoid clues as to the author’s identity, ensured that I read Alan Moore’s introduction last). It’s nice to know that as often as I’m wrong about things, I can still occasionally be proven right. If everyone has just one book in them then I’m glad Brian Catling took the time to write this one.

You can’t beat the publisher system

There are two ways to understand this.  If you saw the title of this blog as a challenge then it’s very likely that you have just self-published (or, are considering self-publishing) your novel.  If you saw the title of this blog-post as the encapsulation of a self-evident truth then you’re probably one – or more – of the following: (a) a publisher, (b) a literary agent, (c) an author who has jumped through the hoops, or (d) a bookseller who has had to again explain why this is so (and no, it wasn’t me on the occasion that inspired this post).

In the UK, a typical paperback costs around £8 or, in current terms, an hour of your employed labour before taxes.  If you worked in a typical job and spent all your money on books, you could buy – on average – 7-and-a-bit paperbacks per day but you don’t do that because there’s things called ‘mortgage’, ‘utility bills’, ‘credit card repayments’, ‘bank overdraft’, ‘insurance’, ‘pension’, children and so on.  The £8 cover price is a sum of money that each bookseller has to work hard to extract from the already tight household budgets of book-lovers.  Every time a book is bought, there is the inherent promise that the reader will be entertained for a few hours from a restricted budget that might otherwise have been spent in the cinema, buying DVDs, paying for swimming lessons, saving for a holiday… well, you get the idea.  Those bestsellers you hear about were not created by a certain online website because as everyone knows, the very best marketing is word-of-mouth and bookshops are where, despite the loud volume of social media, that conversation about new books begins.

So, if you are a self-published author and wondering why the bookshop won’t stock your book, ask yourself these very important questions:

1. Did you pay to have your book professionally edited?

2. Was your manuscript typeset by a professional who understands how the font and spacing of words can influence the enjoyment of your book?

3. Was the book jacket designed by a professional with an understanding of your target market?

4. Have you provided free copies to booksellers, journalists, fellow writers and bloggers in the hope that someone, somewhere might write a short review that will be widely read?

5. Have you ensured that you have a large print-run stocked in a warehouse from which replenishment stock can be re-ordered digitally on the off-chance – the most slender chance – that a sale will be made?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the questions above then you must know that the process of taking a book from manuscript to publication is a very expensive process, in other words… you didn’t do any of this.  You simply lost patience with agents and tiring of these elitist gatekeepers, you took matters into your own hands and now you’re left with a whole pile of books in a non-standard font, very likely printed in Times New Roman on very bright-white paper, with a very shiny jacket designed by you to your very exacting standards and this, this shop boy, is telling you ‘no, thanks’.

Booksellers are also gatekeepers of a sort.  Usually paid minimum wage or thereabouts and expected to work overtime for book launches and signings in lieu of time off next month (maybe), we also don’t get paid a commission for recommending the books we put in our customer’s hands.  In a straw poll of current and former colleagues, we reckon that with the exception of free proof copies from publishers, we see maybe one book a week each that we like enough to buy for ourselves.  There are around 190,000 new books published each year in the UK or, less than one in a thousand.  Booksellers don’t work in bookshops for the wages: we know that we’d get better pay employed by Starbucks (at least £1.10 per hour actually).  We’re in the bookshops because we love books and that’s the same reason that literary agents who receive upwards of 50 unsolicited submissions a week do what they do: the hope of finding that one perfect novel.

If literary agents said ‘no’, take it on the chin.  If you’ve been rejected a dozen times, it’s probably time to reconsider your novel and start working on something else (though if you’re serious about writing, you’ll be doing that anyway).  If you’ve been rejected a couple of dozen times, maybe throw that book away and start on something else because it’s possible you’re writing in the wrong genre or the wrong historical period.  Maybe, you should try writing non-fiction (but definitely not autobiography because if you really were that interesting, the publishers would have approached you) or tackle a screenplay.  Why not?  We learn by doing and trying something unrelated can open your eyes to different ways of seeing the world.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on scams and don’t – as happened last week to a former colleague in their own bookshop – shout at the guy behind the till because chances are, they are also an unpublished writer, albeit one who knows Rule Number One of Being a Writer: Don’t be a dick to the people who you need to sell your book.

Rule Number Two of Being a Writer: Always remember that everyone knows everyone else or at least someone who does.  Publishers and booksellers might take the mickey out of each other but the book business is like a family business and we don’t like folk who kick our siblings.

More helpfully, here’s a couple of very useful and informative links that very concisely give advice to new and emerging writing talent:

Chuck Wendig describes ’25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents’.  Read it.

Though some of the advice has an Australian slant (and therefore contains information particular to non-UK and non-US authors), Ian Irvine gives new authors some helpful tips about things to look out for and things that must be done in ‘The Truth About Publishing’.  He also writes very good fantasy fiction.

Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants

I am really looking forward to seeing Sylvain Neuvel’s, ‘Sleeping Giants’ coming in to bookshops later this year (on 21 April to be precise).

On coming in to work last week, I found a proof in the staff room and curiosity got the better of me (thank you, Emad Akhtar).

These ‘proofs’ are special advanced reading copies of books publishers are keen to promote among journalists and booksellers especially. The concept works best when publishers are trying to promote a début author’s work. These proof copies are not for sale because though they are close to the finished book, the jacket design and other details are still being finalised so the jacket below…

Neuvel_SleepingGiants

…may be nothing like the finished book (though I hope Penguin keep with this striking image). All you need to remember in April is SLEEPING GIANTS.

It’s not my usual sort of book to be honest but that’s why I’m so keen on the idea of being able to put the book in the hands of customers. As with the other book I’ve really loved this year (Becky Chamber’s, The Long Road to a Small Angry Planet), it’s the characters that make this book.

Usually, as soon as I see that a book – any book, fiction or non-fiction – is composed of letters, emails, sticky notes or any other gimmick, I usually put it down and never pick it up again (which is a polite way of saying that I dismiss it as a load of ill-considered, poorly-written, under-edited garbage… just tell me the story, damn it). Told in the form of interview transcripts, the story of Dr Rose Franklin and Warrant Officer Cara Resnik tracking down ancient and very hi-tech relics reads like the bastard love-robot of X-Files, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield and Neon Genesis Evangelion as imagined by Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith.

It would be hard to tell you any more about the novel without giving away some of the twists of the plot so I won’t. Just remember: ‘April’ and ‘Sleeping Giants’.

More generally, I’m enjoying the recent glut of authors and publishers actively promoting the idea that the main protagonists (and antagonists) in fiction don’t have to be recently-retired, male, alcoholic, anti-authority blah blah blah. This is a novel with positive, intelligent female role models I could give my teenage niece – and nephew. It really is long past the time that other genres of fiction caught up to this trend. It’s just a shame that none of the main characters are teenagers because this story would definitely work in the YA section of bookshops but no author can give you everything in a single novel.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

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You have to read this book.  This book belongs to that rare sub-genre of no particular name which contains those few novels which make you remember why you became a bookseller in the first place.

It’s also a Ronseal book .i.e. it does exactly what it says on the cover.  It takes Rosemary Harper – and the crew of the Wayfarer – a very long time to get anywhere at all but as with all the best journeys, it’s not about the destination.  It’s not even about the stops along the way which could have easily fit into a number of recent TV sci-fi series such as Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.

As with all the best sci-fi, the feel of the world the characters inhabit isn’t smooth like something from The Jetsons but rough like salvaged junk.  If you travel on a ship that’s going any distance, you’ll need engineers who know how it works because it will, in the way of all machinery, break down.  Good repairs aren’t neat repairs and the repairs of repairs don’t have to look pretty just so long as they work.  The same philosophy is applied to good characters.

So many writers write what they know that a book that isn’t about middle-class problems is immediately going to stand out on the bookshelves.  It’s surely not difficult to accept that science-fiction will always have the edge over so-called ‘non-genre’ or literary fiction written with the apparent sole purpose of winning literary prizes because in imagining strange and unfamiliar settings, the writers have to focus on the characters to be able to present something that readers can relate to and this is the strength of Becky Chambers’ novel – and indeed any great novel of the past few years such as Ann Leckie‘s ‘Ancillary Justice’ or Emmi Itäranta’s ‘Memory of Water’ (which, though I didn’t write a review of it at the time, was definitely my favourite read last year).

Is Fife Council’s incompetence to blame for the closure of 16 public libraries?

It was interesting to read Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian today but in truth, the closure of 16 libraries in Fife has been an ill-considered process with little public consultation and no regard for the long-term economic prospects of the region or council services in general. Worse, these cuts were not necessary, were not ideologically-driven and cannot even be dismissed as a combination of the most petty form of party politics and collective lack of imagination.

Libraries are gifts from the past, intended for our future. Collectively, we are borrowers from our libraries whether we use the book lending service or not. We all contribute to the services provided by Fife Council and should not ever be left feeling that as taxpayers in small communities, our collective contribution amounts to no more than being in receipt of street lighting and bin collection.

Three different amendments to the motion to close these libraries were proposed and all were rejected by the administration running Fife Council. These amendments were the result of councillors from other parties actively seeking contributions and ideas from the people of Fife who, it is hoped, will remember the fourteen who voted to close their libraries in May 2016.

While it is not disputed that some of the libraries needed to be modernised to make them more accessible to the disabled, the elderly and parents with pushchairs, the legislation governing access for the disabled was introduced ten years ago and certainly before the economic downturn of 2008. Fife Council has had some time to get its property in order and to smooth the transition between old building stock and new.

But the closure of the libraries was not proposed by the council itself. This was initially planned by unelected civil servants and it was only because of an objection by a single councillor, Susan Leslie, who reminded her fellow councillors of the need for a legally-required public consultation that taxpayers in Fife had any warning that these closures were imminent.

It gets worse. Once local campaign groups began asking questions on how this plan of closures became the only plan, it became clear that only had Fife Cultural Trust proposed no alternatives but that FCT had completed no thorough investigation of the costs involved. Closing a library involves more than simply locking the doors one last time. The books must be moved. This involves an extraordinary amount of haulage – extra trucks, boxes, man-hours of labour – and a place to store the books. The furniture has to be relocated along with the IT equipment. Health and safety checks for each process have to be completed. Staff have to be relocated and/ or made redundant (eventually). There was absolutely no cost planning. In essence, someone at FCT looked at the figure they were told to save by the council – coincidentally, the same £800k that FCT was first asked to save in 2011 and hasn’t – then simply totted-up the cost annual costs of each small library until they got to the sum required.

In considering whether Fife Cultural Trust has a good grasp of the costs involved in running – and shutting – libraries, it is worth asking just how effectively FCT has been managing other costs.

In 2012, Fife Council placed libraries, theatres and museums in the care of the newly-established Fife Cultural Trust (SC415704). As a registered charity, libraries managed by FCT were no longer liable for business rates, ensuring a saving of approximately £400k per year to the council. However, Fife Council did not reinvest this saving in the libraries but instead imposed further cuts on FCT and this has already impacted on services, especially what can only be described as the managed decline of the range of books available. There are still, for instance, guides to Windows 2000 on Fife library shelves.

Taxpayers who currently work – or used to work – for booksellers or publishing houses would be surprised to find that there are four people in charge of buying books with a budget of £800k per year for 47 libraries (plus 3 mobile ‘libraries’). It is a small budget and certainly less than a single bookseller would command when buying for a city-centre bookshop. When challenged about this, Laurie Piper, representing FCT said that it was “proof the buyers were doing a good job.” But that’s a cost saving right there: four people employed to do the work of one in the private, commercial sector.

Another saving that could have been made is to not spend over £10k paying a company in Cambridge to analyse visitor numbers to the library but to expect that someone already in theemploy of FCT knows how to use an Excel spreadsheet.

Further savings could have been made in the cultural program. In the financial year-end 2013-14, Fife Cultural Trust spent £150k on promoting the artsfor which the return was around £80k – a loss of about £70k. So pleased was Fife Cultural Trust with this loss that in the year 2014-15, the amount spent on promoting the arts was £300k for a return of… nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero. Squilch.

In the last four years, the mere existence of Fife Cultural Trust has saved Fife Council £1.6m and yet nothing from this sum has been deployed to save libraries. Representatives of Fife Cultural Trust insist that people are reading digitally now and have spent money on third-party software that is unsupported by book publishers and once block-chain technology is deployed to counter privacy, will become redundant. Trends in publishing and book retail are also showing that e-reading has plateaued as eviedenced by Waterstones’ recent announcement that as a result of poor sales, they were removing Kindles from display. People actually like physical books and you don’t have to read The Bookseller (Charlotte Eyre, The Bookseller, 25 September 2014) to know this as you can search for Voxburner’s polling online.

But libraries are about more than books. Yes, they are great places for children to develop a lifelong love of reading and therefore, helping themselves toward a better education but they are often the first point-of-contact for community engagement. One of the biggest maladies affecting the elderly is loneliness. A librarian might be the only friendly face – or voice if books are delivered – that the elderly might encounter. More than this, libraries are often the only place that those striving to get back into work might get help with changes to DWP regulations.

It is a point of fact that libraries receive no funding and librarians no training in helping jobseekers navigate the very stressful search for work by the DWP. As anyone with a BT internet connection knows, access to the world online is expensive. If families enduring financial stress are already having to choose between heating and food, then it stands to reason that the internet connection will have already been scrapped. A library is going to be the only place to access the DWP’s back to work programs online and these must be used or penalties result. It’s all very well an unelected civil servant directing people to use their nearest alternative library but this involves travel costs.

The inability to manage costs, to persuade councillors to give due consideration to savings already made, to understand the changing role of libraries and the increasing importance of libraries in small communities, let alone the proper planning of a more streamlined library service all point to bad management. You’d assume that anyone who failed so many Key Performance Indicators would be made redundant or at least, required to explain their failures but not if you work in the so-called Third Sector.

Several assumptions have been asserted, repeated and worse by both representatives of Fife Council and Fife Cultural Trust, who have used these as the basis for decision-making behind closed doors. Residents of Fife, for instance, are still to hear from Fife’s councillors how re-employing ‘consultants’ who have taken voluntary redundancy for six-figure sums was going to produce an effective plan that would find wide support among Fife’s taxpayers (Freelance move leaves Fife library staff ‘fizzing’, The Courier, March 2015).

It should never be the case that taxpayers struggle to get clear answers to their questions from councillors or employees of Fife Council. For all the great work that campaign groups have done in quickly coming together to collate information that should have been provided to them (and I was privileged to work with just one of these groups in Kinghorn), it should never be the default of reply of councils or ‘charitable trusts’ created by councils that taxpayers – also, voters – are told that such information is not covered by Freedom of Information legislation. But perhaps that has ultimately worked in our favour. Like other registered charities, Fife Cultural Trust has to report its annual figures to Companies House and it makes very interesting reading.

When filing annual figures with Companies House there is a lot of small print that one could easily miss but among the blurb, it states that a director should not file figures if they do not agree that the figures are final and accurate.

Twelve directors are listed as having signed-off the figures lodged with Companies House on 14th September 2015. As these figures have not been challenged by any of the 14 councillors who voted for the closure, perhaps they would also like to reply to these questions:

1. Given that the consolidated financial statement for the financial year-end 31st March 2015 was not filed (and therefore assumed to be complete until 14th September), on what basis were the projected savings of £347,037 calculated for future financial planning by Fife Cultural Trust?

2. What criteria were used in the selection of senior managers and what key performance indicators were placed in contract such that on failure to achieve the stated aims and budgetary performace of the charitable group, these same managers could be removed and /or not have their rolling contracts renewed?

3. In relation to the above, did the directors not have concerns that in the year-end 2014, the arts programme had raised just £80,212 from an investment of £149,843 (notes 5 & 6 of the financial statement)? And further, that in the year-end 2015, for a much larger investment of £301,176, there had been a return of exactly nothing? Subsequent to these results, what KPIs have been put in place to ensure that senior managers deliver the necessary turnaround in FCT’s financial position?

4. From the same reported figures: given that there is no indication of an ability to reverse the decline in revenues through the catering and bar facilities managed by FCT, do the directors accept that franchising these properties would at least gain a positive stream of revenue from rent on these premises or, do they continue to prefer that public money continue to be poured into the serving of alcohol, teas and coffees?

5. Last but not least, how do the directors wish to explain the curious figures for reported wages and salaries? Between year-end 2014 and year-end 2105, the total bill for wages and salaries (note 9) drops from £6,351,700 to £5,480,811. This 14% drop is commendable. But let us consider that the number of employees has dropped 28%, from 458 to 331. Given that salary increases were reported as being 3.5% on average, it is peculiar that the average salary did not increase from £13,868 to £14,353 but instead to £16,588. Either the average pay increase was misreported or the number of employees is misreported or, worse, the total figure for wages and salaries is incorrect.

2015

2014

Wages and salaries

£5,480,811

£6,351,700

Employees (pro rata?)

331

458

Average salary

£16,558

£13,868

 

If the average pay increase figure of 3.5% was accurate, 331 employees would cost £4,750,969 (or, £13,868 x 1.035 x 331).

Would any of the board of directors – or even those 14 councillors who voted to shut our libraries – like to explain the £729,842 difference?

Given that no separate figures are reported for the consultation conducted this year, are taxpayers in Fife (who have read the earlier article in The Courier) to assume that the difference in ‘wages and salaries’ was in fact the sum of money used to pay the consultant who devised Fife Cultural Trust’s library closure plan?